The City Planning Commission voted July 12 that Madison Square Garden be given a ten-year extension of its special permit to operate a large arena atop Penn Station, contingent on The Garden making a series of immediate improvements on the adjacent sidewalks and streets–while also working cooperatively with the railroads on a major renovation of Penn Station.
The chair of the planning commission, Dan Garodnick, said the Garden had made “a number of commitments,” including getting the huge tractor trailers off of 33rd St. and dressing up the bleak façade along Eighth Avenue, with three dimensional signage highlighting the importance of the spot.
“It will do a lot to make MSG a better neighbor,” Garodnick said as the commission voted July 12 to approve the recommendation and send it on to the the City Council.
While commission staff described the Garden’s commitments as significant improvements, the proposed extension of the operating permit disappointed advocates. They had hoped the expiration of the current permit later this month would provide the leverage to simply force the Garden to move, making way for a new above ground station.
“We are being asked to nip at the edges when much more important questions need to be answered,” said Samuel Turvey, a principal advocate for a new above ground station rebuilt from the tracks up. “We think MSG should move. We also believe this site and region deserve a great above ground station once MSG is moved.”
Garodnick said that “there has not been a meaningful alternative” site proposed for the Garden, and that under those conditions the neighborhood should not have to wait for improvements that the Garden has committed to making in exchange for permission to stay. The commission proposal also seemed to fall short of the request of the MTA, one of the three rail agencies that uses Penn Station, that the extension of the operating permit be used to push The Garden into agreeing to land swaps. The railroads say that these swaps would facilitate their vision of an improved station. That vision from the railroads–Amtrak, NJ Transit and the MTA–has been competing for the public’s support with a proposal from a private developer, ASTM, which instead of swapping property proposes to pay Madison Square Garden in cash for some of its land. It recently unveiled cost estimates for its plan, which it projects will cost $6 billion
The MTA said it welcomed the recommendation. “We are pleased that the City Planning Commission is recommending that MSG be required to work with the MTA and other transit agencies to ensure that the arena become compatible with a world-class Penn Station,” said the MTA’s chief of external relations, John J. McCarthy. “This is consistent with Governor Kathy Hochul’s vision to make Penn Station a facility that puts New Yorkers first.”
The MTA has said this is a poor use of public money, but Governor Kathy Hochul has said all plans will be considered. At a meeting of the commission on July 10, Garodnick said he did not know what renovation plan would emerge from the current debates. The commission will require the Garden and the railroads to return when designs for a renovated Penn Station are 30 percent complete, which commission staff described as a common industry benchmark. In the meantime, Garodnick said, the Garden has made a series of commitments to improve the often dismal conditions on the sidewalks and streets around the Garden. They will have six months to flesh out these commitments and two years to complete them, the commission said. For example, the Garden currently parks trucks on West 33rd St. as they wait to unload for events at the Garden. The commission said that the Garden was committed to finding new locations to stage these trucks. The Garden also committed to give Amtrak, the actual owner of Penn station, better signage along Eight Avenue. “You won’t be saying [to yourself] ‘where is the entrance to Penn Station?’,” a commission staffer said. There will also be new sidewalks around the Garden with benches and trees, as per the Garden’s commitments.
The commission acknowledged that a number of these improvements might conflict with or be superseded by larger renovation plans currently being debated. There would have to be continuing conversations to choreograph the work, the commission said. Amtrak has said, for example, that it needs to repair the waterproofing of the ceiling of Penn Station, which in many places is only inches below the sidewalk or street along Eighth Avenue that the Garden is promising to improve. More dramatically, the ASTM plan calls for the demolition of the theatre along the western edge of the Garden to create a grand entranceway to a new Penn Station. That would obviate the need to make the currently blank wall more palatable. Both the MTA and ASTM plans would use the derelict taxiway between 31st Street and 33rd Street to create multi-story entrance ways near Seventh Avenue. Garodnick said he hoped a grand new Penn Station would emerge from these discussions, but that there was no way to know how long this would take. In the meantime, he said, “we did not think we should wait for that.”
The commission’s action was prompted by a city requirement that arenas larger than 2,500 persons receive special permission to operate. When the Garden was built in the 1960’s on the site of the former Pennsylvania Station, the city gave it a special operating permit for fifty years. When that permit expired in 2013, the City Council extended it for ten years on condition that the Garden find a new location. That never happened, creating the present situation when the current permit expires later this month. The planning commission was scheduled to vote formally on its recommendation on July 12th. The City Council must ultimately approve the Planning Commission’s recommendation.
One of the most prominent activists in the Penn Station neighborhood, Layla Law-Gisiko, said the city should hold Madison Square Garden on a shorter leash. “A 10-year permit for MSG is too long considering the rapid planning efforts for Penn Station, and the goal of enhancing compatibility between the arena and the train hub,” said Law-Gisiko, a member of Community Board five and President of the City Club of New York.
Another advocate for a new Penn station, Alexandros Washburn, chief architect of the Grand Penn Community alliance, said that granting another ten year extension to Madison Square Garden “will be like Déjà vu all over again.”
He recommended a four year extension. “That’s more than enough time for MSG to prove it will live up to its obligations while, at the same time, allowing for ambitious new plans for the station and the arena to be conceived and discussed -- plans that would be truly transformative,” Washburn said.”The passionate discussions occurring now about Penn Station and Madison Square Garden could yield one of the great public works of our time. Why cut them off with this misconceived extension?”